Letter Posted on the Sea of Faith
I’m writing to you today from the inside, as one who has answered God’s call to serve as an ordained clergyperson in a mainline Protestant denomination, or what many now call a sinking ship.
Do I ever think about doing something else? Of course I do. The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it? Yet honestly as soon as I begin to consider greener pastures, something deep within compels me to stay – the eyes of an infant as she’s baptized and claimed as a child of God, the widower as he mourns for the love of his life, the single mother struggling to make ends meet, the teenager willing to admit he has more questions about faith in God than answers, the parents of a son who has just “come out” and they’re struggling to understand the harm their beloved child has experienced at the hands of a professed Christian.
In these moments, I can’t help but feel that I am right where God has called me to be.
Not that it isn’t frustrating or challenging or hard at times. But it is also a sacred honor to be invited to journey with people in the midst of the ordinary and extraordinary moments of their lives and to witness God working amid the joy, brokenness, and pain.
Nevertheless, the worrisome statistics and the conventional metaphor don’t go away: Denominationalism appears to be a sinking ship.
It is harder to identify what will work to reverse the forces pulling this ship down than to say what will not work.
What will not work is complacency, an inward focus only on those who are already within our crumbling walls (the result, of course, of deferred maintenance).
What won’t work is a belief that we can keep doing something because “we have always done it this way.” There’s no magic pill that will instantly fix all of our problems.
But there are some things statistics cannot predict and narratives of decline overlook.
I can say that I have witnessed God working to transform churches and the lives of people connected to them. I have seen young people come alive as they live their faith through service to their neighbors. I have seen transformations of people who come to a deeper understanding of God’s presence as they share the bread and the cup at the Lord’s table. I have felt the Spirit moving among people who engage in worship in a new way, people who thought they had no song to sing. I have witnessed struggling, self-absorbed congregations begin to turn outward and move beyond the walls that once isolated them.
In the United Methodist Church, it has been said lately that our future depends on our response to a church-wide “Call to Action.” Initiatives are underway to promote congregational vitality by empowering lay leaders, inspiring clergy excellence and worship, and focusing on small groups for children, youth, and adults. Yes, the church needs to change in many ways, and change can come by concentrating on these areas.
However, in the uncertainty of this post-denominational time, we cannot forget who brings us together in the first place. And it’s not excellent programs or vital ministries. It is God, who loves us unconditionally, who extends grace to us without judgment and calls us to love others in return. If we lose sight of the one who calls us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, then indeed our ship will sink.
So I stay.
I stay because I am compelled by the message of the one who sent his Son to die for us and who brought him back to life.
I stay because I am not afraid of this news of a ship in trouble. It may be that the ship as we’ve known it actually needs to sink – only then can it be re-imagined and renewed so we can focus again on that which brings light and life, the one who taught us to love.
I stay because I am called to share the love and break down the walls of division. I stay because I love liturgy and I love justice. I stay because I love being on this sacred journey with people who love God.
And I stay because I realize I am not alone: There are others like me, others who inspire me. Together we are guided by a loving God.
So, church, even through the pain and necessity of change, I am not prepared to leave you. Let’s walk into God’s future, together.
Originally from Cabot, AR., the Rev. Jessica Anschutz ’07 M.Div. is pastor of Central Valley United Methodist Church in Central Valley, NY., a member of the YDS alumni board, and the chair of class agents for YDS.